Major issues such as trade, security and China’s expansion are up for discussion when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travels to Southeast Asia this week. On the first leg of his trip, in Malaysia, he’ll be checking in on a new government for the first time.
Pompeo’s meetings with senior Malaysian officials, planned for Thursday and Friday, follow a shock election in May that brought back to power the country’s aging authoritarian leader, Mahathir Mohamad.
Now 93, Mahathir was prime minister for 22 years until 2003. This year, he staged a stunning political comeback to unseat his former protégé, Najib Razak, who governed for a decade.
The U.S. secretary of state arrives at a time of great change for Malaysia. In recent months, Malaysia not only chose a new leader — it also arrested the previous one, Najib, and charged him with corruption. Meanwhile, China has continued its strategic expansion across the region.
The U.S. and Malaysia did over $50 billion in bilateral trade alone in 2017, according to the U.S. State Department, making Malaysia one of America’s leading trading partners of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known as ASEAN. Pompeo is also due to attend an ASEAN forum in Singapore this weekend.
“Taking advantage to meet the new government in Malaysia is a sign of the [U.S.] commitment to building ties with allies and partners alike,” says Satu Limaye, head of the research nonprofit East-West Center’s Washington office.
Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib had good relations with the United States and even paid a visit to the White House last year. The new leader Mahathir, who often railed against the U.S. during his earlier term in office, is now expected to carry on his country’s good U.S. ties, according to Limaye.
If anything is changing, it may be Malaysia’s assessment of plans with China.
“The biggest change I see so far … is the re-evaluation of some Belt and Road initiative infrastructure projects that Malaysia was looking at with China,” Limaye says. Belt and Road is China’s more than $1 trillion global development initiative. Malaysia’s new government has suspended a major rail project under the initiative.
Still, it’s early days, says Limaye, so it’s difficult to say what direction Malaysia is headed. And the country has been quite unpredictable lately.
A shock to the system
No one could have predicted what would happen in Malaysia in the May 9 election that resulted in its longtime ruling party being defeated for the first time.
The National Front coalition, and all of its past iterations, had been in power since Malaysia’s independence from British rule in 1957. Even if its dominance in parliament had eroded slightly since its peak in 2004, the National Front was expected to retain power. For years, it had doled out patronage and worked to undermine the opposition.
Then, earlier this year, its onetime leader, Mahathir, left his old coalition and created a new one. He aligned with opposition politicians to form Pakatan Harapan, or the Alliance of Hope.
Mahathir also broke with the country’s long tradition of race-based parties and urged voters to “forget the racial origins and think of themselves as pure Malaysians.”
The National Front is made up of several race-based groups, including the United Malays National Organization, Malaysian Indian Congress and the Malaysian Chinese Association.
Mahathir’s efforts to reach across racial lines helped loosen party affiliation, even among rural Malays — a stronghold for the National Front — and especially among young voters, according to Tan Seng Keat with the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research.
During his campaign, Mahathir also zeroed in on the multibillion-dollar corruption scandal involving a government investment fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), that dogged the incumbent Najib for years. In July, Najib was arrested for allegedly skimming from the fund for personal use.
Further, the ruling party’s message of “Make My Country Great With National Front” struggled to connect with voters. According to surveys before the election, voters were most concerned about the corruption and economic issues that persisted under the only ruling party they had ever known.
On election day, Mahathir’s new alliance raked in more than 48 percent of the vote and swept 121 of the 222 seats in parliament. Najib’s National Front came away with just 33 percent and 79 seats.
A new Malaysia?
Today, Malaysians are still euphoric over the results and Mahathir’s return. Even members of smaller parties outside the two main coalitions tell NPR they feel like they finally have an opportunity to participate in the democratic system.
Yet analysts caution that it may still be too early to tell whether this is truly a “New Malaysia” — a moniker commentators are using for the country since the election.
Critics of Mahathir are skeptical the onetime strongman’s new term as prime minister will be any different from his previous one. Dubbed “The Father of Modern Malaysia,” Mahathir is credited with bringing political stability and economic growth to the country. But he also was known to silence dissidents, attack the judiciary and control the press.
He even jailed his former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, for challenging his governance during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s on charges that were widely criticized. In mid-May, Anwar was granted a full pardon and — in another possible twist — is even expected to take over as prime minister within the next two years. Analysts say this is an indicator that Mahathir has changed.
The new Mahathir is older and wiser than when he first led the country, says Tan Sri Rastam Mohd Isa, chairman of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, a think tank in Kuala Lumpur.
“He’s [now] leading a coalition that comprises different parties, different ambitions and, in a way, different ideologies,” he says.
How the 1MDB scandal is handled will be a major opportunity for Mahathir to show his government can usher in real change.
Former Prime Minister Najib was charged with corruption and three counts of criminal breach of trust for his alleged connection with the scandal. The U.S. Justice Department is also investigating whether Najib laundered some of that money through U.S. financial institutions.
“No prime minister [in Malaysia] has ever been charged for such offenses,” says Simrit Kaur, a Malaysian journalist. They asked NPR not to disclose their employer as they are speaking in a personal capacity and not on behalf of their news outlet.
Najib has pleaded not guilty and has maintained his innocence ever since the scandal was brought to international attention in 2015 by The Wall Street Journal.
The credibility of the new government and Malaysian institutions would be at stake if Najib is found not guilty, Kaur tells NPR in an email.
“I’m sure the trial will open a can of worms,” says Kaur.
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